Solar law expected to heat up industry

This 40-panel solar photovoltaic system was installed last month on top of an Awendaw home. It's one of the largest residential installations by Edgewater Energy & Mechanical Services.

Maggie Attaya had a solar hot water system installed in her James Island home not long after she moved there in 2005, and she was pleased with how well it worked.

Last year, she upped the ante and had a total of 26 photovoltaic solar panels placed atop her Cross Creek home - enough so that she no longer has to buy any electricity.

"The bottom line is that my electric bill now is the $10 they have to charge you if you want a meter, plus the cost of the service care," she said. "I'm delighted."

She said she figures to recoup her approximately $30,000 investment within a decade, even though she has little use for the state and federal tax credits that have driven many other homeowners to have solar panel installed.

Stories like Attaya's could become increasingly commonplace in the next few years, now that South Carolina has a new law aimed to promote solar use - and to create new options for consumers to finance the upfront cost over the long haul.

South Carolina's climate makes it one of the better states for solar power, but its spread here was limited because the state's prohibition on financing them as well as other complex regulatory issues.

North Carolina and Georgia, which have similar climates, ranked third and seventh, respectively, in the amount of solar energy capacity installed last year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. South Carolina didn't make the top 10,

State lawmakers held off from passing any bill until a consensus emerged between environmentalists - who have wanted to promote solar - and utilities, who have concerns about how the rules over solar power might affect their bottom line.

But this year, the Coastal Conservation League, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the utilities got together and agreed on proposed legislation to move the issue forward - legislation that won unanimous approval in the House and Senate. Gov. Nikki Haley signed it on June 9. Dana Beach of the coastal Conservation League said the new law "puts us, in some respects, in the forefront of the Southeast in terms of allowing third party investors to come in and build solar facilities on company roofs, on houses, on stores, on churches."

Emily Brady, spokeswoman for S.C. Electric & Gas, said the utility is working on its distributed energy resource plan and hopes to complete it by the fall.

"We haven't created it, so I can't walk you through how it's going to be just yet," she said. "We're very positive. We've been delighted about how things have transpired. We like this collaboration with moving the ball forward with renewables for our state."

Grant Reeves of The InterTech Group in North Charleston, which has pushed for the new solar law, said the legislation was designed to take some time, about a year, to iron out details.

"A lot of hard work is going on behind the scenes putting meat on the bones," he said. "Certainly, The InterTech Group is working on ideas and proposals but nothing that is shovel ready now. It's probably going to be in April of next year before you start seeing a lot of activity."

Reeves said the legislation could lead to utilities installing 300 megawatts worth of solar during the next seven years, a half-billion dollar market.

"That's going to get the attention of a lot of people," he said.

Currently, Reeves said the state has about 7 megawatts of solar power, and 90 percent of that comes from only two places: a new 4 megawatt solar farm in Colleton County and the roof of Boeing's North Charleston plant, which generates 2.6 megawatts.

The current federal tax credit of 30 percent - which comes on top of South Carolina's 25 percent credit - is scheduled to end for solar systems installed after December 2016.

But Reeves said that might not slow down customers' embrace of solar.

"The industry already has seen substantial cost reduction," he said, adding if past trends continue, the cost of panels could drop to where the tax breaks are no longer needed.

"Solar panels drop 20 percent in cost every time production doubles," he said. "There are many in the industry would like the industry to stand on its own."

Kevin Crout began his business, Edgewater Energy Services, six years ago and mostly installed solar hot water heaters.

By 2011, however, the price of photovoltaic solar panels began to fall, "and our business mix flip-flopped totally from solar hot water to PV. That's almost all we do now."

He has followed the Legislature's debate over a new solar law and was excited to see Gov. Nikki Haley sign it in June.

Last month, he finished one of his largest residential installations to date, 40 photovoltaic panels atop a home in Awendaw, and he expects South Carolina's new law will make him busier still in the coming year or two.

The panels cost about $1,200 each, so homeowners' ability to finance the cost over a longer term will make it more appealing. He already is talking to potential partners and anticipating the need to hire more crews.

"It's going to really open up the market, particularly form a leasing standpoint," he said. "It will open up the market to the homeowner who can't initially afford the investment up front. A lot of people can't. We're excited to be able to present this to the average homeowner, where now it's kind of a niche."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.